Roaming Nome

The last three days have passed in a blur.  With 24 hours of light (including 21 hours when the sun is actually above the horizon), there is a surreal sense of timelessness.  One day blends seamlessly into the next.  Fog rolls in, fog rolls out.  Rain changes to sleet, and sleet into brief bursts of sunshine.  The pack ice on the Bering Sea blows in, and then blows out.

Bering Sea Pack Ice

The ice patches that still dot the landscape melt and re-freeze, making interesting patterns and formations.

Ice columns

Many times I’d forget whether it was time for breakfast, dinner, an outing, or bed.  I’d get back in the truck after a short hike across the tundra to find (to my amazement) that it was nearly 10pm.  One day I brushed my teeth four times, the next I forgot completely.  I couldn’t remember if an event happened earlier that day, or the previous day, or the day before that.  But the one thing I know is that Neil and I typically spent a good 14 hours in the field, sometimes longer, and we saw some amazing things.

Our trusty steed was a 2002 pickup with 149,000 miles on it.  It came with one half-flat tire, and one-quarter tank of gas.  But as soon as we pumped up the left front tire a bit and put about $100 worth of gas in it, it was good to go!

gasoline in Nome

On our first full day, we headed out Kougarok Road.  Highlights included Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Rock and Willow Ptarmigan. A female Willow Ptarmigan even posed in the road for us:

Female Willow Ptarmigan

We also saw Muskox; some were distant adults:

Muskox

And one adorable baby muskox briefly ran along side the truck:

Baby Musk Ox

In the afternoon we drove back along Council Road, where Neil’s sharp eyes picked out a group of four rare Steller’s Eiders floating along on a small piece of sea ice.

Steller's Eiders

They were too far away for my wimpy camera, but we got great looks through the telescopes.

The next day we explored the third road out of Nome, Teller Road.  A moose greeted us on the edge of town.

Nome Moose

Our jaunt down Teller was another great success.  We found singing Bluethroats, and Neil got some amazing photos of this Old World thrush (or is it now considered a flycatcher?) that barely ranges into Alaska.  He promised to send me some of his pictures.  Neil also found a White Wagtail, a rare bird even for the Nome area.  This Asian vagrant fluttered about the edges of the Sinuk River near a bridge, and I snapped some blurry but identifiable photos for posterity:

White Wagtail Nome June 7 2013

For our final full day in the Nome area, Neil and I again teamed up with Abe to look for the mythical Bristle-thighed Curlew.  There is exactly one accessible location in North America where this shorebird breeds, and I use the word “accessible” loosely.  First you have to fly to Nome, via Anchorage (and maybe some other places).  Then you have to secure a vehicle and drive 72 miles north on the Kougarok dirt road.  Then you have to climb across the wet tundra up a mountain ridge to the Curlew’s nesting grounds, a hike that has been described as “walking on bowling balls” due to the nature of the low but very thick plant life there.  Then you have to identify the Curlew, which looks extremely similar to the Whimbrel, another shorebird that nests in the same area.

Neil, Abe, and I left Nome very early, stopping only to search (successfully!) for Arctic Warbler about 20 miles up the road.  We arrived at milepost 72 by 9am, and began the relatively short but squishy hike up the ridge.  I have to hand it to these curlews – they picked a remote but spectacular place to raise their young:

BT Curlew Nesting Area

After getting to the top, the first large shorebird we spotted was a Whimbrel.  But a short time later, another bird came flying in, giving the Bristle-thighed Curlew’s characteristic call, and showing its distinctive unstreaked, buffy rump.  This is one of the hardest birds in North America to actually see, and we were all pretty happy about finding it.

Abe and Neil

We hung around for a while, watching an American Golden-Plover and some displaying Long-tailed Jaegers, and then headed back to the truck for the long drive back to Nome.  After vowing to “go to bed early for a change,” Neil and I were again out birding past 10pm before I finally convinced him to go back to Nome for dinner.  I was tucked in no later than about 1am.

This morning I was scheduled to fly to Gambell, a tiny Yupik village on St. Lawrence Island.  Unfortunately it is very foggy at the Nome airport today, and I’ve spent the last four hours in the waiting area at Bering Air to see if our flight will go out.  The only good part about this is that I’ve finally been able to catch up on my blog a bit.  Currently we’re still on “weather hold” and the fog does not appear to be lifting.  If the flight is canceled, I’ll try to find a place to stay in Nome tonight (the place I’ve been staying is full up!) and maybe try to get on a flight tomorrow.  Travelers to Alaska sometimes have to be flexible and patient.  But it’s worth putting up with the weather and the delays to be able to visit a special place like this.

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There’s No Place Like Nome

Nome Scenery

After a week driving north (to Denali) and south (to the Kenai) from Anchorage, I hopped a flight to Nome in western Alaska.  Nome is a small outpost on the Bering Sea.  It is surrounded by tundra, mountains, ice, and some very cool birds that are hard to see elsewhere in North America.  There are three dirt roads leading out of town (some 75 miles each), so the plan was to rent a pickup truck and drive into the wilderness to see what I could find.

I met Neil Hayward from the Boston area a few months ago thanks to the miracle of the internet and the online birding community.  Neil is doing a North American Big Year in 2013, and what a year it has been so far.  He has been doing some amazing trips and seeing some great stuff, and he agreed to meet me in Nome for four days of intense birding.

Neil at Bluethroat

I was so glad to have Neil along for this leg of my trip.  He is an excellent birder, and a great traveling companion.  I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the area with him.

We both arrived in Nome on the afternoon of June 5th, but our rental pickup wasn’t available until the morning of the 6th.  Fortunately we bumped into Abe Borker and his father Joe, who very graciously invited us to ride along with them in their truck for an afternoon of birding the Council Road and Safety Lagoon.  We didn’t need to be asked twice, and soon the four of us were off.

Nome Council Rd

We had a fantastic afternoon.  Some highlights for the day were two Arctic Loons, Red Phalaropes, an Emperor Goose, and this Gyrfalcon (and three fuzzy babies) nesting under a bridge:

Gyrfalcon nest

I got a few pictures of some birds that were close to the road, including Bar-tailed Godwits (two in their alternate breeding plumage and one still in basic winter plumage):

Bar-tailed Godwits

Numerous Red-necked Phalaropes:

Red-necked Phalaropes

And a second-summer Slaty-backed Gull (to the right of the white immature Glaucous Gull):

2nd Summer Slatybacked Gull

We also saw a fox, and the remains of a Tundra Swan that presumably had been the fox’s breakfast this morning.

Tundra swan wing

Further along the road, there were reminders of Nome’s history as a gold rush town.  Gold was discovered in this area in 1897, and a few years later the area was inundated with prospectors.  It was the largest town in the Alaska Territory by the turn of the Century a few years later.  Reminders of this era remain in many places today, like this old abandoned gold dredging machine.

Abandoned Gold Dredge

A railroad line was even planned and built in the early 1900s from Nome to Council City.  Although it was never completed all the way to Council City, the line ran for several years until about 1907.  Difficulties with construction, operation, and financing stalled the project, and in 1913 the line was wiped out by a huge storm.  The cars and engines still sit in the tundra where they were wrecked, nearly 100 years ago.

Abandoned Railway

Abe, Joe, Neil, and I explored the Council Road area late into the evening.  With sunset around 1:30 am, there was seemingly no reason to end our trip.  We finally rolled back into Nome about 10:30 pm, and were fortunate to find one local establishment still open: the Bering Sea Bar and Restaurant.  After a meal, I headed to bed.  Sunrise would come early (4:28 am), and I had three more days of birding ahead of me.

I often end my posts with a pretty shot of the sunset, but this time you’ll just have to use your imagination.

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The Crossover Event of the Season

Tufted Puffin

During a long morning watching seabirds in Kachemak Bay east of Homer, I  decided that I needed my own reality television show focussed on birding.  If people actually watch the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo and whatnot, certainly they would tune in to see a balding middle-age guy track down North America’s most interesting birds… right?  I mean, you’re reading this right now and it’s not even on TV!

As we were returning to the boat basin at Homer Spit, I saw something that gave me a sudden inspiration.

Time Bandit

It was one of those crab boats from that show on the Discovery Channel.  I’d watched it a couple of times – the most interesting parts are the hundreds of pelagic seabirds that follow the boats around eating the bycatch.  What I really needed, I thought, was a television special – a “crossover show” featuring both the crab guys and me.  We could call it “Deadliest Birding.”  Or perhaps, less dramatically but more truthfully, “Most Uncomfortable Birding.”  Those fishing guys could catch some crab while meanwhile I would be up on the bridge (staying dry and warm) identifying the storm petrels, shearwaters, and fulmars flapping around the vessel.  Brilliant!

Sadly, the boat seemed deserted, and there was no one to listen to my fabulous pitch.  But I am seriously planning another kind of crossover.  I’ve been doing almost all of my birding solo this year.  But tomorrow I’m flying to Nome, and will be teaming up with another birder doing a Big Year (for calendar year 2013).  His name is Neil Hayward, and he is hard core.  He has already seen almost as many birds in the first 6 months of 2013 as I have in the last 12 months combined.  You can read his brilliant and hysterical blog here: http://accidentalbigyear2013.blogspot.com.  I’m counting on Neil to help me track down some tough specialties of the Nome region, and also to keep me from getting lost in the tundra or eaten by a Grizzly.

Finally, on an unrelated note, I have only about 10 days to go on my Nature Conservancy fund drive, and I still haven’t quite reached my goal.  A huge thanks to those of you who have donated already, and a plea for the rest of you to consider a contribution.  Even a small one helps!  Thanks!  The address to donate is: http://support.nature.org/goto/degrys

The Kittiwakes and I thank you!

Seabird colony rock

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The Kenai Peninsula

Travelling south, I passed through Anchorage and continued down the Seward Highway to the Kenai Peninsula.  This area is in many ways very different from Denali, but just as spectacular.  It borders Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, so for one thing I’m back on the coast.  The Kenai area is also home to the Harding Icefield, which spawns several dozen glaciers.  I visited a number of them on a trip through Kenai Fjords National Park.

Exit Glacier

The photo above it Exit Glacier, which is one of the most accessible glaciers in the park.  You can drive to within a mile of it, and hike right up to its “toe.”  Exit Glacier is retreating, probably due to global climate change, having become over a mile shorter since 1895.

Glaciers are the outflows (the “drains” if you will) from the Harding Icefield.  The Icefield is a basin area that gets well over 30 feet of snow per year on average.  Over time this snow is compacted into very dense ice.  The ice slowly slides downhill, forming glaciers and carving out new valleys.

Yesterday I took a 9-hour boat trip out of Seward to tour Kenai Fjords, to see the glaciers and the wildlife of the area.  I was not disappointed.  The scenery was impressive.

Kenai Fjords

Kenai Fjords

Sea Otters were common, and not shy at all.

Sea Otter

We saw five Humpback Whales, including this one very close to shore:

Flukes

And this one farther out:

Humpback whale

A transient Orca swam by, making some of the smaller marine mammals a bit nervous.  But these Harbor Seals in the shallows didn’t look too concerned.

Harbor Seals

Nor did these Steller’s Sea Lions high on the rocks:

Steller's Sea Lions

Steller’s Sea Lions are one of several Northwest animals named after Georg Wilhelm Steller, who travelled with Vitus Bering on his 1740s expedition to Alaska from Russia.  Steller was a doctor and naturalist, and described a number of new species of flora and fauna unknown to the Old World.  Several of Steller’s namesakes are now extinct (Steller’s sea cow) or endangered/threatened (Steller’s Sea Eagle and Steller’s Eider).  Steller’s Jay, however, is doing quite well and can be seen in my yard back home in Washington state (and throughout much of the American West).

Glaciers were another highlight of the boat trip, and we spent some time at the incredible Holgate Glacier.

Holgate Glacier

Holgate is a tidewater glacier, meaning it flows directly into the ocean.  You could hear thunderous cracks and booms as it calved giant boulders of ice directly into the sea.

Whole Lotta Ice

The bluish color of the glacier comes from light that gets scattered by the densely packed ice.  Most frequencies of light pass through the ice, but blue tends to be absorbed and re-emitted by the electrons in the water molecules, scattering the light and making the ice appear somewhat blue.

Nearby, we could see the much smaller Surprise Glacier.

Surprise Glacier

Birds, of course, were also a highlight.  I saw eight species of alcids, seabirds of the puffin, murre, and auklet family.  Seeing hundreds of Horned and Tufted Puffins was a highlight, as well as a half-dozen Parakeet Auklets up close –  a new bird for me.  The heavy clouds, drizzle, and rocking of the boat made photography difficult, and most of my bird pictures didn’t come out at all.  But I did get a few pictures of some Common and Thick-billed Murres resting on a cliff:

Murre lineups

And hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes swirling around their nesting colony:

Kittiwakes

Kittiwakes are a kind of gull.  They make their nests on sheer rock walls on offshore islets to protect them from predators.

Kittiwakes nesting

Returning to Seward, we passed huge rafts of murres on the water – thousands of them.

Whole Lotta Murres

Despite the cold and wet weather, and some difficulty in finding some of my target species, I have thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Kenai Peninsula.  I’ll be here another day or so, and then I’m headed northwest to Nome and Gambell.  I’m not sure when I’ll be able to update this blog again, but I will when I can.  I’m about to head into parts unknown (at least unknown to me!).

AK warning sign

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Denali

Denali landscape

I had heard a lot about Denali National Park in Alaska, but none of that prepared me for the sheer magnitude and majesty of this place.  Denali is six million acres of protected wilderness in the midst of some of the most breath-taking geology in all of North America.  Almost everything about it is at least a little fantastical.

Denali peekaboo

For starters, I’m just a couple hundred miles south of the arctic circle.  Sunset tonight is at 11:51pm, which is followed by several hours of twilight, and then sunrise again at 3:51am.  The sun rises in the north (NNE, actually) in an almost horizontal motion, slowing creeping above the horizon.  After five hours or so, the sun is halfway up in the eastern sky.  By midday (five hours after that) it’s swung around nearly overhead and slightly to the south.  For the next 10 hours it treks westward and then northward, finally setting again in the NNW, not too far from where it rose.

Even though tomorrow is the first day of June, in some ways it still feels like winter here.  The Denali lowlands got 9 inches of slow last week.  While daytime highs have been climbing into the 70s, I see ice and snow all around me, sometimes several feet deep.

Denali landscape

Just getting here was an adventure.  Denali is 250 miles north of Anchorage, most of it on a two-lane road, the George Parks Highway.  I was swerving around moose in the middle of the road less than 10 minutes from the Anchorage airport, and things only got wilder from there.  On my journey north, I could see that spring is indeed late this year.  Many of the rivers were still in various stages of breakup, as the long winter’s ice cracked and buckled under the warming sun and the surrounding rush of meltwater.

River Breakup

I stood on the bridge over this river, and watched icebergs of various sizes and shapes float by, as thunderous cracks upstream heralded the arrival of new chunks of loose ice barreling downstream.

River ice

I stayed in the tiny town of Healy, about a dozen miles north of Denali’s main entrance road.

Healy

Aside from this sign, there are a few hotels, two restaurants, and one gas station in Healy.

There are a couple of different ways to experience Denali National Park.

Me at Denali

There is a visitor’s center and some trails right at the entrance, and you can drive in the first 15 miles on the park road in your own car.  But if you want to go beyond the Savage River at milepost 15, you need to take an official park shuttle or bus.  The narrow and sometimes treacherous road that snakes west for 92 miles just isn’t built to handle the 400,000 people who visit Denali annually.  I bought a ticket to Toklat at MP 53; the road beyond that was still closed due to snow.  At 7am, I boarded the bus for the seven-hour round trip.

Denali bus

While Denali does have some interesting birds, the highlight here is mammals.  And what a highlight they are!  In two days, I got great looks at Dall’s sheep, moose, caribou, collared pika, hoary marmots, snowshoe hare, arctic ground squirrels, a gray wolf, and a lynx.

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare – still turning from his winter whites to his summer browns

Dalls sheep

Dall’s sheep, with babies

Caribou

Caribou

Bad moose

WHY did my camera freak out and refuse to focus right when mama moose and her two cute mooselings appeared right next to the road??  I guess I’ll never know.

While Denali is the best place in North America to see large mammals, I saw a few birds too – including possibly my new favorite bird, the Willow Ptarmigan.

Willow Ptarmigan

They are just so comical and charismatic, perched in the top of spruce trees and muttering their cackling chicken-language under their breath.  I found them utterly charming.

Willow Ptarmigan in the rain

Even aside from the animals, there was so much to look at in Denali.  The landscape itself was breath taking.

 

 

Denali landscape

I even got to see Denali itself (or Mt. McKinley, as the U.S. Congress still insists on it being called).  This 20,320 foot peak is the tallest in North America.  During the spring and summer months it’s often wrapped in clouds (it creates it own weather), but for a few hours yesterday you could see its glaciated summits.

Denali

And this was from some 80 miles away!  Later it rained, and I got to see my first Denali rainbow.

Denali rainbow

With near 24-hour daylight, it’s tempting to stay up all night walking the trails, reading my book, or planning the rest of my Alaska trip – but I think I will force myself to go to bed now.  It’s been 3 days since I’ve seen darkness (the blinds in my room don’t close all the way), but my body still needs sleep.  I think.  Right?

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Big Bend and Arizona Wrap-Up

I’m back at SeaTac International Airport, getting ready to board my flight to Anchorage.  Which means if I’m going to do a wrap-up post for my last trip, I’d better make it snappy.  Here’s a quick one…

Miles by car: 1881

Miles by car over crappy mountain roads: 80

Miles by foot: 40 (approx)

Number of species seen: 128

New Birds for my Big Year: 15

Total Species Seen Since June of 2012: 624

Probability that I will hit my goal of 650 before my Big Year ends: 57.2%

Number of Stomach Flu Viruses in my gut during the AZ portion of my trip: 8,954,000,000

Coolest “Plain” bird: Juniper Titmouse

Juniper Titmouse

Coolest Abundant Bird: Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Coolest “non-bird”: endangered Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog

Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog

Place I never get tired of visiting: Cave Creek Canyon, AZ

Cave Creek Canyon

Roughest Road: Tie – Road to Christmas Mountain Oasis and Carr Canyon Rd (pictured below)

View from Carr Canyon

Bird that wouldn’t give me the time of day: Miller Canyon’s Spotted Owl

Spotted Owl

Bird that was most “in my face”: Rock Wren

Rock Wren

One of the only birds worth an 11-hour drive followed by an 11-mile hike: Colima Warbler

Colima Warbler

As I mentioned, I’m off to Alaska this morning – my very last trip of the year.  I’m a little nervous about this trip, as it’s my first trip to the 49th State, and I don’t really know much about birding Alaska.  I know where I’m staying almost every night, but my plans for what to do each day are still a little up in the air.  I found packing for this trip challenging too, as I’ll be gone for 15 days and need to be prepared for temperatures ranging from 25 F to 85 F.  Apparently spring is late arriving this year up there, and some roads that I was planning on using are still snowed in.  I’ll try to post some updates and photos when I get to a place that has good internet connectivity.  Whatever happens, there will surely be good stories to tell.

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Dangers of Southeastern Arizona

My post about the Dangers of the Everglades has turned out to be hugely popular – I guess lots of people Google that phrase.  With that in mind, I present this encore performance: Dangers of Arizona!  All the danger!  Double the Signage!  You may not survive!  Especially if you are a car….

Dangerous Road Ahead

Dangerous road?!  But, hey – it’s a Wildlife Sanctuary!

Limited Maintenance

Just sit back and relax, for the next hour or so.

Curvy Rd next 19 mi

Hope you like curves.

Road disintegrates

I love this one.  Is that the sign for the road disintegrating?

Not a semi truck route

I had to pull over I was laughing so hard when I saw this one.  Not a semi truck route, eh?  This sign was MILES after the other ones (above) up a rocky, one-lane dirt road high in the mountains.   Thank you, US Forest Service, for this amazingly helpful sign!

Primitive Road

Does this mean that I use normal paved roads at someone else’s risk?

No services 74 mi

74 miles?!  That would get you from New York City to northeastern Philadelphia.

Smuggling

Watch for smugglers.

Wildfire Area

And for wildfires.

Fire Damage

Even AFTER the fires are over there’s danger!

Dusty car

There is no sign warning that your car will get very, very, very dusty.

One Lane Switchbacks

Which would make passing other vehicles coming in the opposite direction very problematic.  Luckily, I didn’t see any.

Polluted Sewage Water

I like how they specify that this particular sewage water is the polluted kind.

Beware of Bears

Advice #1 on this notice: Avoid Confrontation.  Sage….

Bear Damage

In case you missed the first bear sign.  Speaking of vehicle damage, the vultures of Arizona don’t mess around with merely chewing up your windshield wipers.

Vulture Emergency Power

They have been known to cut the emergency power at the most inconvenient moments.

All of this dangerous outdoor travel made me want to stop at this nice little nature museum on the outskirts of Portal, AZ.

Dangerous Venomous Reptiles

Hey, what the heck?  Dangerous AND venomous, eh?

All of these photos were taken by me within the span of less than three days last week.  My suggestion for a new state motto:

Arizona: bad roads; good signage.

 Sign Yall Come Back

Ok, I think I will.

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